18 May 2013 by Published in: Uncategorized 25 comments

I was considering the problem of infinite regression in cosmology the other day (code for drinking – wink wink) and found myself talking to a friend at a social engagement (barfly at the local cantina) about the burdens of being an acclaimed indie novelist (glorified panhandler and vocational liar).

Soon, the chatter turned to genres and markets (as do many of my inebriated monologues to my fellow celebrants – I don’t get invited to a lot of parties, in case you’re wondering), and I made the declarative statement that I was a niche market novelist, in that I write for the very small subset of thriller readers who want something written at college level. I’m well aware that most of the big selling books are written at what is euphemistically termed as sixth grade level, which is in reality fourth grade level, because American sixth graders score at about a fourth grade level on reading.

What that means to me as a novelist is that I would be far better off writing at just above Hardy Boys level as opposed to whatever the hell it is I do.

But I can’t. I mean, I’ve tried, but I don’t have it in me. I can maybe get down to an eighth or tenth grade level, but my gag reflex triggers when I try to move further downstream.

Which will affect my ability to sell to the broad market. Look at what James Patterson’s books read like – and the man’s the top selling novelist in the world. Or consider EL James’ 50 Shades of Gray – a book written at more like a second grade level with lots of BDSM sex. One out of every six books sold last year was 50 Shades. Or how about Twilight? Massive. I could go on. But you get my point. It’s that if you want broad success, you’re better off writing in as sophomoric manner as possible.

And I’m fine with that. I believe that the book market is rapidly fragmenting, so a niche author like myself can earn a handsome living writing for a relatively small audience.

Let’s say that the world thriller market is 20 million (I have no idea what it is, but play along here). And let’s say that 90% of those thriller readers believe that Patterson reflects the best of the genre (I have no problem with the man, BTW – he’s a masterful marketer, and back when he was actually writing his books, some of them were engaging). To my mind, that excludes 18 million readers from my sales strategy. They aren’t my customers. Never will be. Unless hell freezes over or I get Beyonce pregnant. Which could happen. But I’m not banking on it.

But the good news in my mind is that it leaves about 2 million who are my possible audience.

Now let’s say of those, 1 million would sneer at my simple-minded attempts to entertain with my little stories. If it’s not Daniel Silva, they don’t want to read it. That’s fine. Still got a potential market of a million.

I guess when you look at it like that, being a niche author in this genre isn’t such a bad thing.

Now maybe you would argue that it’s not 20 million, but rather is 10. Whatever. It’s still a buttload of people I can reach. If I write 3 books a year, and only reach 1/4 of my target readership of a million, I would be selling 750 thousand books a year. I’d be fine with that.

Obviously, I’m not there yet.

But I’m okay with the way the numbers lay out. I don’t need a jet (nobody needs a jet) or three Ferraris (ditto – I mean, three seems gratuitous) or a hundred foot boat. I’m far happier writing what I write than trying to write something that I’d really need to force, all in an effort to reach the Dan Brown audience. I mean, look at his books. 25-30% of the reviews are one and two stars. And almost all the reviews at that level are eloquently written by those with masterful command of the language. Meaning people who obviously read at considerably above a sixth grade level, and who hate his books because they view them as puerile pap. They mock him because the plots are unbelievable, the formula hackneyed and the prose sub-custodial.

And you know what? They’re right.

And it doesn’t matter.

Because a whole segment of the reading public loves his novels. The five star reviews wax enthusiastic about “learning something when you read his books.” In other words, most thriller readers don’t care about anything I just described. In fact, it’s quite possible that they don’t even register any of it. And that’s just the way it is.

If you want to make a fortune in TV, produce reality TV shows, not Masterpiece Theater. If you choose to do MT, you aren’t going to have nearly as many viewers, and the ones that do tune in are likely to be really annoying know-it-alls with effete sensibilities who sneer at the idea of commercials and wouldn’t know a Kardashian from a Pepperoni pizza – not that there’s a lot of discernible difference. But I digress. My point is that I’ve chosen to write what I like to read, and everyone can suck it. Okay, no, perhaps that’s not it. Maybe a better way of saying it is that I can no more change how I write after a certain point than I can change my facial features. It’s just part of my author DNA, and is a function of what I grew up reading. To try to pander to some larger crowd would immediately be obviously insincere – not that I’m particularly sincere to begin with, especially after a few cocktails, but that’s neither here nor there.

So I write what I write, and am thankful that readers are responding well to it. I’m sure I’ll have books that some of my core audience dislikes (I’m guessing that my next one, Upon a Pale Horse, polarizes my readers – some will love it, and some will hate it, specifically because the pacing is more Grisham-like than my usual fare, and because the core science behind the novel’s premise is so disturbing that many will just hate the message, and therefore the book, because of the questions it raises). It’s inevitable, unless you want to do nothing but write car chases and gun battles with an occasional plane trip thrown in. Not that I sneer at that – one could argue most of my work falls into that category. Whatever. Back to where if you don’t like it you can bite me.

What this leaves me with as a writer is really no choice. I need to write what I write, and not focus on how to become a mass-market bestseller. Word of mouth is building nicely, and sales have never been better, so I’m fortunate beyond imagination. I get that. I’m of the belief that you’re better off doing something you love, rather than churning out something that you dislike or hate. Which is why you won’t be reading 50 Shades of Yarn for Mr. Mittens anytime soon. The irony is that would be my bestseller, without a doubt. You have kink. You have sex. You have cats. Yarn. It’s got it all.

Some would argue the world is a better place without that epic manifesto. I’d be the first. But mainly because I’m shiftless and lazy, and couldn’t write it properly. So I won’t try.

Unless a publisher wants to hand me a seven figure advance, in which case I’m so all over it. Agents and publishers, take note. The Mr. Mittens trilogy could be yours for a song, really. Unmarked hundreds in a briefcase are fine. Call me. Really. I’m totally serious.

Please.

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Comments

  1. yoon
    Sat 18th May 2013 at 6:27 pm

    Good to see you be your usual self (drunk).

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 18th May 2013 at 6:58 pm

      You make it sound so ugly. Don’t hate. Life’s too short.

      Reply
      • yoon  –  Sat 18th May 2013 at 7:07 pm

        Is it that time of the month? Cause you are being too sensitive. I meant that in the most loving way possible, I myself having had a bottle of wine as lunch.

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Sat 18th May 2013 at 7:24 pm

          That’s the quintessential argentine lunch. Two for dinner. I applaud you. Hear hear!

          Reply
  2. Sat 18th May 2013 at 7:28 pm

    You should stick with writing your way and attracting readers who enjoy your style. I don’t think you should change a thing.

    Beyonce? I never would’ve guessed. Men always like women that women don’t rank high on their best looking list. Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet, and Marion Cotillard are tops in my book. But what do I know, I’m a Twilight fan.

    Also, I’m not a doctor, but I think having everyone “suck it” would be a health hazard. Just saying.

    Reply
  3. Sat 18th May 2013 at 8:14 pm

    Maybe I am not a very nice person. Because I chuckled, and sneered, and jeered at the nettles in your clever diatribe (all the while sucking on sour grapes). I had once asked one of my benign reviewers if I should perhaps “write down a bit.” He threatened to change my blond locks to red if I ever did–with a bowl of spaghetti sauce.

    So—in your own words—we write what we must. Not what we should. But in the dark of the night, I wonder: Do I really want to forego the yacht and the toy-boy?

    I guess, that seven-figure offer you hinted at might hold the answer.

    Reply
  4. Sat 18th May 2013 at 8:34 pm

    It’s an interesting post. I’ve been thinking on this subject for some time, wondering what it is about best sellers almost universally being badly written and deeply flawed. I wondered why so much rubbishy erotica is cluttering up the charts, and you hit the nail on the head here: it’s like Reality TV. It’s easy to digest, disposable entertainment produced to be consumed rather than appreciated or savoured.

    That they’re often written in very basic language only adds to the appeal to the wider audience. Dumb it down enough so that even amoebas can understand it.

    And like you, I’ve tried to write like that. But I can’t. I need to at least aim for something better. Prose that goes beyond the barest essentials, and ideas and plots that are at least thought provoking and make sense when considered after. If that means I become a niche author, then so be it. I’m sure I’ll be happier writing those kind of stories than dumbing it down to Brown/Meyer levels.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 18th May 2013 at 9:11 pm

      I think the publishers get it. They’re not in this to produce art. If they can get Snooki or a Kardashian to put out a book, they know that no matter how awful and uninteresting it is, it will sell X dollars worth. So they view it, as I would, as invest Y dollars, sell X dollars worth, make Z dollars of profit. So who the F cares what the product is? It’s about the profit – always, which is sort of how for-profit companies have to work.

      But I don’t have to maximize my shareholder’s value. I’m the board of directors and the sold shareholder of me, Inc. So I can elect to make decisions that aren’t necessarily always 100% profit-driven. I don’t kind myself that if I wrote more “accessible” prose I wouldn’t sell more. I know I would. My new series I’m already plotting out will be less driven by a desire to maximize every sentence for literary merit and more to provide a fun ride for the reader. But even so, I know it won’t be sixth grade level. It will be about what I did in Fatal Exchange or Zero Sum, which is to say, more like eleventh grade. That’s about as low as I can comfortably go and still feel as though it’s worth reading. I simply won’t write something I wouldn’t read myself. I can’t do it.

      Nor will I. Even if that means I don’t maximize my profit. The world has enough shitty books. I don’t need to add to the pile.

      Reply
      • Colin F. Barnes  –  Sun 19th May 2013 at 9:57 am

        The thing is, if you stick to a style, you’ll build an audience that appreciates, and hopefully it’ll continue to grow and grow.

        The danger or pandering to a popular genre/style is that you’re competing with so many others and could potentially do well, but also potentially get lost in obscurity. So sticking to your guns and writing your truth I think is always a safer long term approach. And it seems to be working for you, so carry on what you’re doing. I’m sure your audience will appreciate it.

        Reply
  5. Sun 19th May 2013 at 8:54 am

    Interesting topic, amigo.

    I read DaVinci Code well after the fact. I missed out on the initial buzz. When the first movie trailers began appearing on TV, I thought Tom Hanks (who I normally like a lot) looked like a dork. A complete dork. It turned me off. Needless to say, after several people I knew were carrying the book everywhere they went and/or listening to the audiobook (they even spoofed this on Scrubs), I finally found a used copy somewhere for $0.25. As a writer I wanted to, at the bare minimum, give it a read in order to see what all the fuss was about. My initial impression was that it was superficial. Not real deep. The prose was alright, but thin. It was clearly a beach read. Perfect for the Early Majority and the Late Majority.

    I would pump out a DaVinci Code if the promise of the money was there. How could you not? It’s wise sheerly from a financial standpoint. I recall reading an article about Emelio Estevez making those Mighty Ducks movies because in exchange Disney paid for him to make a movie he wrote and directed himself.

    We can sit here and talk shite all day. Dan Brown’s the one rolling around naked in a pile of money, laughing his ass off.

    Similar story with TWILIGHT. I read it to see what the fuss was all about. But I wound up enjoying the story. Sure the book had about 10 typos in it and every scene not involving Edward was a waste of ink, but overall I found it to be a compelling romance; I genuinely wanted Edward and Bella to be together. The entire second book sucked because it was all about poor-me Jacob, and not yummy sparkly Edward. But I digress.

    If you want bestseller sales and money, mirror the bestseller formula. Write under a pen name if you’re too embarrassed. Or write your “real”, “serious” books under a pen name, again if you’re too embarrassed. Or write what you write and be happy with whatever comes of it. But let us not disparage the success of others. To do so is mere envy. It is beneath us, no? Or else go watch “Seven” one more time.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 19th May 2013 at 11:08 am

      Ryan. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not disparaging the success of others. I would love to have written Twilight or Da Vinci. Not from a literary standpoint. From a cashing the checks standpoint.

      Who wouldn’t?

      I just can’t write that. Wish I could. If anything I’m envious of those who can do so with sincerity.

      Reply
      • Ryan Schneider  –  Sun 19th May 2013 at 11:41 am

        Oh, yeah, I hear what you’re saying. It’s interesting how each of us has a voice. When we write, we get a certain product.

        If you read every single one of Dan Brown’s books in order of publication, twice, do you think you could emulate one of them?

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Sun 19th May 2013 at 12:03 pm

          Sure. But the problem is threefold. First, it’s almost impossible to make it selling something that is like a market leader, because most who think he’s godhead will think you’re a derivative prick – and they’d be right. Second, what works once usually doesn’t work again. There has been no second John Locke. No second Amanda Hocking. And third, there would be a certain lack of sincerity that would make the effort flawed, even if competently engineered.

          So chasing a trend or a style in the hopes it would yield cash is a fool’s errand, in my mind. And if you look at the bestsellers, they weren’t following some other bestseller’s formula. So I think part of the lie that causes us to denigrate our work in the hopes of easy cash is that if we ape the bestsellers, we stand a chance of becoming one ourselves. They were all singularities. Harry Potter. Twilight. Da Vinci. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. None were following anyone’s lead. Which is part of what makes the book business frustrating for publishers. If it were that simple, they would just be on the phone going, “Find me a Dan Brown.” But they know that doesn’t work so well. More’s the pity.

          Reply
          • Ryan Schneider  –  Mon 20th May 2013 at 10:01 am

            You’re absolutely right: something perceived as new and unique breaks out. It becomes a success. No one knows why exactly. Then others attempt to mimic the work. Which is why there are scores of vampire romance novels available. It’s the bandwagon phenomenon. Typically, some of the copy cats find some measure of success, but not usually the same amount as the original work.

            Works which are similar continue to be produced until the public’s appetite wanes. This is when tv shows get canceled.

            And you are also right that it is best to create our own art and make it the best we can and be content with that.

            Thanks.

  6. John
    Mon 20th May 2013 at 3:33 am

    Brown and Meyer could have just been following advice like that found in the previous blog post – pick a popular genre, stick with it, and write a series. They’ve certainly sold a load of books. Also, wasn’t Voynich Cypher an attempt to capitalize on a Da Vinci style adventure? And hasn’t it worked out well? I’ve wondered sometimes, since you speak so highly of DFW, why don’t you branch out with an anon pen name and write some slice of life literary fiction? It might turn out surprisingly well.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 20th May 2013 at 9:10 am

      Actually, Da Vinci was an homage to Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which is the predecessor to “Brown’s” style, which is a loose amalgamation of Eco sans the research and literary heft, combining Eco’s style with Cussler’s treasure hunt style.

      Voynich indeed worked out pretty well. Other than the comparisons to Brown every 10th review.

      I would write some DFW style whenever I get some time. As it is, my fiction has been edging more into James Lee Burke territory than Brown lately, which is a sort of amalgam of literary and mystery – only I’m moving in a direction I’d call literary thriller. Remains to be seen how fans like that. So far, Blood of the Assassin is the best example of that, and it’s getting raves, but JET V, which is also that style, takes some hits because the pacing slows a bit from the breakneck of the first 4 books – a necessary step to move more toward the literary.

      I have no problem with what Brown and Meyer do. I wish I could do it. I can’t. That’s just me.

      I might try DFW/Pynchon style literary fiction at some point, but it takes a lot longer to write, and the financial payoff ain’t much compared to the genre I’ve chosen to mine, so it will be at a point where I’m confident my sales are whopping and likely to stay that way, and have time on my hands. My old editor’s been after me to do it for years, now, so it’s inevitable that he’ll wear me down eventually. Probably turn out more like Le Carre than DFW, but who knows?

      Reply
  7. Christine Kling
    Fri 24th May 2013 at 1:47 pm

    I suspect you have made these statements about reading grade level here in your blog without really knowing where your novels would score. It’s a cheap shot to disparage other writers and place yourself above them completely based on hearsay.

    I will admit that my most recent novel Circle of Bones scores at a grade level of 5.8 based on the first 5-6 chapters. That’s fairly common for most fiction, including that of some of your favorite writers. Other writers are referring to a real score that can be calculated. You are talking about what you “think” yours would score. Are you brave enough to test a few of your best chapters?

    You can determine the Flesch-Kincaid reading grade level of something you’ve written easily in Microsoft Word. There is a tool for this that you access from your menu bar, and while it varies a bit from version to version, you can find your way with these instructions.

    1. Go to TOOLS and select SPELLING & GRAMMAR then click on OPTIONS
    2. Select the box CHECK GRAMMAR WITH SPELLING
    3. Select the box SHOW READABILITY STATISTICS and select OKAY
    4. To generate the readability statistic now, select SPELLING AND GRAMMAR from the tool bar at the top of the page. The tool will go through its recommended changes and provide readability statistics at the end.

    Care to share?

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 24th May 2013 at 4:48 pm

      Well, my new one, BLACK, which is deliberately written so it reads easier, shows 7.9 on that score, but MS word also gets a host of proper names and words that it doesn’t grasp wrong – such as prandial. So my hunch is it scores lower based on what it perceives as faults. The first four chapters of my new WIP, Upon a Pale Horse, shows 9.8.

      Bravery isn’t really required to click the mouse. Thankfully.

      The person who told me what my writing comes out at is a Big 5 editor. While I have enormous respect for the fine folks in Redmond, I’ll sort of guess that the editor knows a bit more than the built-in feature available in MS word. Perhaps not. I hope that’s the case, because I won’t have to try to write down so much if I’m to really sell well.

      Unfortunately, it looks like I still have to write down 4 more grade levels to have a shot at being a best-seller. The good news is that it sounds like you’re well on your way.

      I specialize in cheap shots. But thanks for noticing. I’m often afraid they’ll be lost on most.

      Reply
      • Old Git  –  Fri 24th May 2013 at 6:49 pm

        I’m guessing Mr. Geoffrey Pullum would have a word or two to say on how grammar, as we have been taught by certain charlatans, actually impacts on creativity. And then there’s the lack of logic in the rules set down by said charlatans. Perhaps we need an algorithm to modify the bafflegab? I’ll mention it to Bill next time we are discussing Word applications…

        Reply
    • Sam Eldridge  –  Fri 24th May 2013 at 8:48 pm

      Coming on a successful author’s blog and complaining about cheap shots is itself a cheap shot.

      Reply
  8. Fri 24th May 2013 at 2:25 pm

    I think no person shud be limited tu certain books becuz of the grade level.. But thats jus me.

    Reply
  9. Christine Kling
    Fri 24th May 2013 at 9:26 pm

    It is interesting that some of your books score so high on the FK readability scale. Usually only books like law or chemistry textbooks score at 9 or above. The reason is that these grade level scoring tests measure things like how many multi-syllable words and super-long sentences are used in a text. It’s a kind of a silly measure, really. That was the only point I was trying to make. Readability doesn’t tell us anything about the structure of the book, the characters or the complexity of the ideas.
    Here are the scores of some famous books:
    To Kill a Mockingbird, 5.6
    Lord of the Flies, 5.0
    The Kite Runner, 6.8
    The Great Gatsby, 7.3
    Animal Farm, 7.3
    Of Mice and Men, 4.5
    Jane Eyre, 9.0
    Jurassic Park, 7.8
    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 7.0
    I completely understand and agree with your main point that lots of bestselling fiction is written to appeal to the lowest common denominator, but I don’t think that the reading grade level is a reliable measure for what you are trying to convey. I think we could agree that most 5th graders wouldn’t understand all of the complexities of a book like To Kill a Mockingbird.

    And as for me being on my way to bestsellerdom because of the lower grade level of my books? Not a chance. You sell way more books than I do, you write them faster, and I admire you for it.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 24th May 2013 at 9:34 pm

      I like long, complex sentences structured with an almost musical cadence. I read guys like James Lee Burke and David Foster Wallace and Ben Johnson. I long ago got comfortable with the idea that I write what I write, and there’s only so much I can do to simplify it without losing the essence. I was told by a pretty savvy editor that I wasn’t doing myself any favors because of it, but I’m stubborn and too old to change, so it is what it is.

      I bet you plug Foucault’s Pendulum or The Name of the Rose or Infinite Jest or Purple Cane Road in the grinder and you’ll come out more in the 9+ range. Then again, those didn’t do nearly as well as Da Vinci Code, so I understand that there’s a tradeoff for everything. In the end, I think we write the way we do, and that’s just how we are. We can try modifying it, but when push comes to shove, we also have to be happy with what we produce. That’s kind of where I’m at. I want to be happy with what I serve up. And if I don’t have a breakout hit, I’m okay with that. I’m not starving, so I’m sure I’ll be fine. I may sell fewer books than I could have if I modified my approach, but I don’t really care all that much, so no harm, no foul. A man’s got to know his limitations.

      No hard feelings.

      Reply
  10. Sat 25th May 2013 at 8:05 am

    This was the first I’d heard of the Flesh-Kincaid test. I ran it on my latest SciFi novel Eye Candy and got a 12.1. The book contains adult content, so it seems the writing is at least on par with the content.

    I got my degree in English Literature. I also read/studied a buttload of American Lit, both canonical and contemporary. I suppose that stuff rubbed off. How could it not? I simply try to write prose that is timeless, which hopefully produces a story that also stands the tests of time.

    Reply
  11. Collette
    Thu 20th Jun 2013 at 6:50 am

    I read many, many books and must say that yes Russell’s writing has increased my vocabulary. I also have read many books that probably are 5 grade – maybe lower – and depending on story alone have enjoyed. For me it’s not the level of reading but the level of intensity I get of character involvement. Twilight, Black Dagger Brotherhood, Sookie Stackhouse, House of Night,Greatest Hits, everyt hing JR Rain, HT Night and Russell Blake.
    In short I read an abundance of STUFF. I read for pleasure and entertainment. I see no reason to even consider a change in writing style for Russell.

    Reply
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